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Artificial Ingredients In The Crosshairs

Food: Responding to consumer demands, major food brands removed additives

by Melody M. Bomgardner
December 21, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 49

Credit: General Mills
General Mills will introduce naturally colored cereals (right), minus the neon green and blue hues of their predecessors (left).
The image shows two bowls of General Mills Trix cereal. On the left is one with artificial colors. On the right shows Trix made with natural colors.
Credit: General Mills
General Mills will introduce naturally colored cereals (right), minus the neon green and blue hues of their predecessors (left).

This holiday season will be a little less colorful, at least in the grocery store. Earlier this year, General Mills and Kellogg’s—both makers of rainbow-hued cereals aimed at kids—vowed to remove artificial colors and flavors from many of their products. Naturally colored versions of General Mills’ Trix cereal, among others, will hit shelves later this winter.

In a similar move, food giant Kraft said it will remove synthetic colors from its iconic macaroni and cheese dinners starting in January. Chocolate lovers may notice that holiday versions of Hershey’s Kisses will not contain ingredients such as synthetic vanillin. Even fast-food chains Taco Bell and Pizza Hut promised to nix additives.

Food makers stress that they are reformulating recipes in response to growing consumer preferences, not because the artificial ingredients pose a risk to health.

General Mills said its own research shows “49% of households are making an effort to avoid artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources.” Consumer trends consultancy Mintel cites similar data. Outside the U.S., it points out, brands such as Nestlé moved more quickly to make similar changes.

It can take quite a bit of food science to address consumers’ wishes. Synthetics are generally inexpensive, stable, effective in small amounts, and Food & Drug Administration-approved. Researchers are now turning to colorings made from fruit and vegetable juices or colorful spices such as turmeric. Recipes may require significant reworking because natural colors can add undesirable flavors or degrade during processing. The cost and availability of natural ingredients also pose challenges.

For ingredient suppliers, however, the turn toward so-called “clean labels” is an opportunity to develop new products and grow once-niche businesses. In France, Solvay is increasing production of its natural vanillin made from ferulic acid derived from rice bran. Earlier this year, agriculture giant Cargill and biotech ingredient firm Evolva began work on a facility to produce stevia, a no-calorie sweetener normally obtained from the stevia plant, using microbial fermentation.


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